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Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic Of 1918 And The Search For The Virus That Caused It - Gina Kolata ”This is a detective story. Here was a mass murderer that was around 80 years ago and who’s never been brought to justice. And what we’re trying to do is find the murderer.”--Jeffery Taubenberger, molecular pathologist

There are estimates that the 1918 Flu killed anywhere from 20 million to 100 million people dwarfing the number of people killed in World War One. Either number is horrifying, but as modern scientists start putting data together the larger number becomes more realistic. I’ve always been fascinated with the 1918 Flu outbreak for a number of reasons, but the one that really sticks with me is that we never defeated it. We never knocked it to the canvas. It came, it killed, it disappeared.

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”Historian Alfred W. Crosby remarks that whatever the exact number felled by the 1918 flu, one thing is indisputable: the virus killed more humans than any other disease in a period of similar duration in the history of the world.”

That is a big statement. It makes the Black Plague look like a featherweight. ”How lethal was it? It was twenty-five times more deadly than ordinary influenzas. This flu killed 2.5 percent of its victims. Normally just one-tenth of 1 percent of people who get the flu die. And since a fifth of the world’s population got the flu that year, including 28 percent of Americans, the number of deaths was stunning. So many died, in fact, that the average life span in the United States fell by twelve years in 1918. If such a plague came today, killing a similar fraction of the U. S. population, 1.5 million Americans would die.”

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1918 Influenza Virus

Interest was reignited in the 1918 influenza outbreak when swine flu/bird flu showed up in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. China is a hot bed for new influenza bugs because of the proximity of birds/swine/humans. Many times you find all three species under the same roof. Birds cannot pass flu to humans, but they can pass it to swine. Swine, being a close genetic relative to humans, (not that surprising) can incubate a bird flu and pass it to humans. The moral of the story is that pigs, birds and humans should not wallow in the same mud hole. The current thought is that the 1918 flu came to humans via pigs via birds.

”In theory, a bird flu could not infect a human because the virus should require cellular enzymes found in bird intestinal cells but not in human lung cells. Yet if, against all odds, a bird flu virus was infecting people, it would have hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins that had never been seen before by a human being. No human would be immune to such a virus. The whole world was at risk.”

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I know he is cute, but he is a deadly assassin.

So there is this very unfortunate pig who becomes infected with a human virus and a bird virus at the same time. He becomes a blender for these two viruses and the next time a human scratches him behind the ears, most likely a child (wonderful incubators), he will pass the new concoction on to humanity which is tragic on many levels, but for the pig especially because who will fill his slop trough if his humans are critically sick.

Before HIV appeared on the scene which would shift all infectious disease researchers in that direction there were teams of scientists searching for samples of the 1918 flu. As is the case with a publish or perish society scientists are not very good at sharing informations, so as one team goes to Alaska to look for victims of the 1918 flu, hopefully still frozen in permafrost, another team is planning to go to an island of Norway with the same thought. When the Alaska team finds a perfectly preserved specimen that information of course is not shared with the rivals even though there was a scientist coordinating both teams. Johan Hultin is the man who makes the find.

”She was an obese woman; she had fat in her skin and around her organs and that served as a protection from the occasional short-term thawing of permafrost.” Hultin explained. “Those on either side of her were not obese and they had decayed. I sat on the pail and saw this woman in a state of good preservation. And I knew that this was where the virus has got to come from, shedding light on the mysteries of 1918.”

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Johan Hultin virus detective.

I would hope, and firmly believe that if the world was on the brink of a major pandemic that scientists would pool their research and share any breakthroughs before publishing (being credited) their findings. During the course of this investigation they also found paraffin preserved lung tissue from victims of the 1918 flu stored at the National Tissue Repository maintained by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Nice to know we have such a handy repository of our disease history.

When a deadly influenza swine flu virus showed up in 1976 President Gerald Ford took the initiative ( I know right who would have thunk it.) that for the first time in human history the government was going to try and immunize the whole country. The press was favorable in the beginning of the program, but papers like the New York Post started to turn the tide towards government conspiracy theories. They wrote on October 14th and article That spoke of a seventy-five-year-old woman who winced at the sting of the hypodermic, then had taken a few feeble steps and dropped dead. Then on October 25th, ”the paper suggested that Carol Gambino, the mobster, had been killed by the Mafia using a swine flu shot as the deadly weapon”.

These misguided, uninformed, paranoid beliefs are laughable, but with politicians like Michelle Bachman and with radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh who are suspicious of any government programs, especially if a Democrat is in the White House, and are very loud about their opposition; I’m sure a similar program to try and stop a nasty flu bug before it got started would be met with heavy unwarranted criticism that could ultimately cost a lot of lives. If the 1918 influenza were to appear today we have antibiotics to counter the bacteria that floods the weakened lungs (pneumonia killed as many or more people than the virus) of a virus ridden body so death counts would be reduced from the 1918 level, but due to the efforts of a handful of scientists we do have the ability now to immunize a population if they will let us.

Gina Kolata has taken me on an investigative adventure that not only made science fascinating, but also accessible. I’m scared, but less scared because I have confidence in the ability of our best and brightest to keep the worst nightmares at bay if only we give them the means and we listen to them before the tip over point has been attained.